I don’t envy David Poile. There, I said it.
The Nashville Predators General Manager is in a no-win situation at the moment. Coming into the season, many experts agreed that the Preds needed a true top line center to become a legit Stanley Cup contender. That need is exaggerated by their recent slump in which they’ve scored just six goals in six games and are 1-4-1 during that span.
The trade deadline is three months away so there’s some time to find the best deal. With every loss, however, the hill gets steeper and steeper to climb in an already cutthroat Central Division. So, from that perspective, time is actually running out.
Names such as Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen and Patrick Marleau have all been rumored as available lately.
Duchene, 24, is essentially a point-per-game player for the Colorado Avalanche and, given his age, would be a key building block up front for years to come. Johansen, 23, is another young pivot who the Preds could build around and is already a former 30-goal and 70-point scorer. Marleau is 36 years old, would bring some veteran leadership to the young forwards and probably enjoy a change of scenery but he’s not a center and his best years are behind him.
There are also the reports out of Edmonton that Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli is ready to trade former first overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Jordan Eberle. Or not. Just depends on which Edmonton Journal reporter you’re reading I guess. Either way, while talented, Eberle is not what the Preds need and Nugent-Hopkins, at just 22 years of age, is not a proven top line center just yet. Does he have a higher ceiling than what Nashville currently has? Of course. But he’ll demand a steep price and I’m not so sure that steep price is worth it.
And then there’s Carolina’s Eric Staal. Elliotte Friedman of Hockey Night in Canada believes these two teams should be talking. Staal just turned 31 so he’s in the prime of his career, has been a consistent 70-point scorer (even on some bad Hurricanes teams), is a true number one center, has been his team’s captain for the past seven years and has even won a Stanley Cup. If all that wasn’t enough, he was coached by Peter Laviolette during the coach’s time in Raleigh so there’s a comfort factor there as well. Problem is, he’s an unrestricted free agent at the end of this year and that complicates things. If it were closer to the trade deadline, the Predators would have a better sense of where they are in the uber-competitive Western Conference and, therefore, what they would be willing to give up in order to “go for it.” Instead, it’s December 1. What if it doesn’t work out? Now you’ve acquired a guy you can’t/won’t re-sign and sacrificed the future by trading away valuable assets at the same time.
Any one of the players listed above would help Nashville’s cause but, then again, identifying a player you want is not difficult. Putting together a package in order to get him is. As a rule, an organization starts with their position of strength. Not only is that position the reason other teams come calling but it’s also easier to overcome a subtraction at that position. For example, if your team has a pipeline of good goaltenders, you start there. If you have multiple can’t-miss prospects at forward, you bring them to the forefront. And, if your club features a stable of high-end blueliners, then they become the bait.
Poile has that stable of blueliners in Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Seth Jones, Barrett Jackman, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis. Logic would suggest that any team who is willing to part with a top line forward, will want a top defenseman from the Preds in return. But, if you’re Poile, it’s not that easy.
Weber and Josi are untouchable. That’s pretty clear. Barret Jackman is a veteran they just signed this past summer to be a stabilizing presence for Jones so he’s probably out. That leaves Jones, Ellis and Ekholm.
Ellis and Ekholm have both been locked up long term (2018-19 and 2019-20, respectively) and Jones is an RFA meaning he’s essentially locked up long term as well. Victor Bartley was just put on waivers, newcomer Petter Granberg has spent the majority of his professional career at the AHL level and Anthony Bitetto hasn’t played enough with the big club in order to be proven. After that, there’s Taylor Aronson, Trevor Murphy and Conor Allen and, let’s be honest, they’re not NHL-caliber. All that to say, if the Preds deal one of their top six, it will create a major hole in the defense. A defense, mind you, that is supposed to be set for years to come.
Nashville also has a legendary goaltending pipeline. Pekka Rinne is a three-time Vezina Trophy finalist and one of the league’s elite so he’s not going anywhere. Carter Hutton is an unrestricted free agent after this season, giving the Preds a reliable back-up who can dispel Rinne occasionally. Juuse Saros is the future of the crease in Music City but letting him mature in Milwaukee is best as you don’t want your top prospect riding the bench 65 times a season when he could be playing regularly. With that in mind, Marek Mazanec has proven he can play at the NHL level so he should back-up Rinne come next October. If Poile trades Mazenec then he’ll need to sign (or acquire) a back-up goalie for 2016-17 and perhaps 2017-18. If Poile trades Saros then he’ll be trading away a key piece to the future of the franchise.
Bringing in a Johansen from Columbus, a Duchene from Colorado or a Staal from Carolina will be painful. The Preds won’t be able to just ship out the age-old “Colin Wilson and a first.” It’ll take much more than that and would most likely create a void in another area as well.
At the end of the day, it takes something of value to get something of value. Acquiring a top line center will require saying goodbye to a coveted player or two. There’s just no way around that.
Again, I don’t envy David Poile.
PHOTO CREDIT: Sarah Fuqua